Sanger was not a 'pioneer hero' by Mary Beth Bonacci
The Arlington Catholic Herald  June 11 - June 17, 2010

Reprinted with permission

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Apparently "the pill" is 50 years old.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the past couple of months, both praising and condemning the little white disc that launched the sexual revolution.  My local paper joined in the festivities a few weeks ago, running a puff piece on the pioneering efforts of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and detailing her activities in southern Colorado in the early part of the last century.

I'm well aware of Sanger's influence in southern Colorado in the 1920s, but the newspaper left out a few details.  I'd like to fill in the blanks.

My dad grew up in southern Colorado in the coal mining camps outside Walsenburg.  His father was a coal miner who emigrated from Italy in 1913.  His mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants.  They were poor, living on paltry wages and making their homes in a series of tarpaper shacks provided by their employer, Colorado Fuel and Iron.

My grandparents were married in 1922 and my dad was born in 1923.  His parents always wanted more children, but after his birth my grandmother never got pregnant again.  They never understood why they hadn't been blessed with siblings for their only son.

Fast forward to the 1950s.  My grandmother has a scare with uterine cancer and in the ensuing hysterectomy the surgeon discovered that her tubes have been tied.  She knew nothing about this and certainly hadn't consented to it.  But looking back, she remembered that shortly after my father was delivered she had experienced some complications that had necessitated a brief hospitalization.  Apparently while she was there, her tubes were tied without her knowledge or consent.

That was Sanger's legacy in southern Colorado.

In the 50th anniversary year, Sanger is being celebrated as a hero who liberated women from the oppressive shackles of childbearing.  But if you read her history and her own words at the time it becomes clear that she was no hero.  She was a eugenicist, plain and simple.  Her mantra was "more children from the fit, less from the unfit."  She believed that there were certain races and classes of people who should not propagate - human "weeds" that should be exterminated.  Among them were African-Americans (the targets of her infamous "Negro Project") and southern European immigrants like my grandparents.

In 1921, two years before my grandmother was sterilized, Sanger gave a speech in which she said, "The third group (of society) are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequences of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers.  Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent upon the normal and fit members of society for their support.  There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped."

Apparently we - my father, my siblings and I - are the "unfit" Sanger was trying to protect you from.

Sanger came to southern Colorado in the early part of the century spreading her unique brand of "reform." Why there?  Because it was a poor part of the country, with a large population of Hispanic and southern European immigrants.  They risked their lives in the coal mines for a few dollars a day and they were causing a lot of trouble.  The area was a hotbed of labor unrest.  The miners were standing up to the powerful Colorado Fuel and Iron, owned by Sanger's benefactor and fellow eugenicist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  They were demanding fair wages and safe working conditions.  The strikes had turned violent and had degraded into all-out class warfare.

The place was teeming with the "unfit."

When I first published my family's story in 1997, a local sociology professor contacted me.  He knew that involuntary eugenic sterilization had been fairly widespread in the southern part of the state during that time and he was looking for a case he could document with hospital records and first-hand testimony.  Unfortunately, by that time my grandparents and their contemporaries had all died and a hospital fire had destroyed any records that might have existed.

But thanks to that professor, I know that we weren't alone.  Many, many women are believed to have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent in southern Colorado and elsewhere.  Most have never undergone hysterectomies or other exploratory surgeries went to their graves without ever knowing why they had been rendered suddenly infertile.

So you'll pardon if if I can't climb aboard the "Margaret Sanger as Pioneer Hero" bandwagon.  She robbed my grandparents of sons and daughters, robbed my father of brothers and sisters, and robbed me and my siblings of aunts, uncles and cousins.

And who knows what she took from the world and what the rest of my family - the offspring of my wonderful "unfit" grandparents - might have accomplished.

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